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Reflections on a Summer in Cambodia

This post is the final installment of a series by Marisa Vickers, Krama Wheel's summer intern in Cambodia. Marisa spent the summer in Siem Reap with our partner organization, Build Your Future Today Center, to learn more about the school uniform program that Krama Wheel supports. She will be sharing her experiences throughout the summer here on the blog. 

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Before visiting Cambodia, I would have never guessed how deep of an impact the country would soon have upon me.  However, after completing two months with the non-government organization, Build Your Future Today Center, I honestly feel that I am connected forever to the people that live there.

Although each day in the villages was a different adventure, working with BFT provided true insight into the challenges that their team faces on a regular basis.  While I was there, I got to learn about so many of BFT’s programs: building and improving roads, schools, and homes; providing food and supplies to people in need; monitoring malnourished children’s health; offering social work to families with domestic problems; offering community programs and skills trainings; teaching free English classes; and of course supplying school uniforms to children whose family cannot afford this essential key to attending school in Cambodia. BFT also has a sector that gives tours of Siem Reap and the surrounding villages, which was created so that the organization did not solely rely on donors.

On a typical day, I would meet the team at around 7:30 in the morning and we would pile into two trucks.  Sometimes the drive to the villages would take more than two hours due to bad weather that caused the dirt roads to flood. This posed a particular problem during their rainy season, as the trucks would often get stuck in areas of high water. Once we arrived to a village, each staff member and volunteer had a different, essential mission to accomplish.  The days were long and hot, but after the goals for the day were completed, the group would return to Siem Reap in the late afternoon in time to begin teaching free evening English classes to individuals that lived in Siem Reap. In my classroom, the students I taught were filled with colorful personalities and smiling faces. The children varied in age and so did their levels of English.  Most days we used games, songs, and stories to strengthen their language comprehension.  

However, one of the greatest aspects of interning at BFT was working alongside an incredible staff.  The founder, Mr. Sedtha Long, is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge and worked relentlessly from the ground up to become highly educated and to help anyone he came across along the way.  

The rest of the BFT staff of tireless Cambodians were humble, kind, and each offered a unique set of skills. Nearly all of the staff grew up in very poor villages and personally knew what life was like in the countryside.  Some had left the villages to become monks and eventually retired from the monastery. Others were former street youths who once thought their futures were bleak, but had proudly managed to turn their lives around. Despite any obstacle, all of them were determined to receive a higher education. It was the relatable backgrounds of the staff that gave villagers hope that perhaps they too could break the chain of poverty.  

Everyone’s personal story exemplified to me what a role model should look like. Each one of the staff members possessed an inner strength and ambition that I came to respect and admire deeply.  Even though the problems of Cambodia sometimes seemed overwhelming, the entire group dedicated nearly every single day of the week towards bettering the community.  These people understand the problems of the villagers more than any outsider ever could. Over the course of ten years since the organization was founded, their efforts have made a really tangible impact. In the regions where the initial programs were first implemented, the villages have started to becoming more self-sustainable through the multiple projects that were initiated by BFT, and as a result BFT plays less and less of a role. Because that’s the ultimate goal: to not need to rely on an NGO and donations--the community becomes empowered to build better futures for themselves.

For those that want to make a difference, there are so many ways to make an impact. While donations help enormously, word of mouth has also proven to be an unbelievable tool. Offering personal time through volunteering can be an invaluable experience. While I was there, volunteers and donors came from all parts of the world to help alongside BFT: teachers, students, artists, psychologists, medical professionals, and business leaders had all traveled to Siem Reap to contribute their various skill sets.  For me, it was an honor to have connected with so many wonderful people that cared just as much as I did about contributing their skills.

The BFT team and all the villagers I met captured my heart.  If there was one word I would use to describe Cambodia, it would be the word “hope.” I believe that this is Cambodia’s word so much that I actually tattooed the word “hope” in Khmer on my back the last weekend I was there.  The Cambodian people have not given up and have continued to prosper over the years regardless of such seemingly insurmountable barriers. Cambodians are descendants of an ancient civilization that has lasted for a thousand years. They are resilient and have taught me so much.  I know I will return to Siem Reap someday soon.

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